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For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts
A Love Letter to Women of Color
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For generations, Brown girls have had to push against powerful forces of sexism, racism, and classism, often feeling alone in the struggle. By founding Latina Rebels, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez has created a community to help women fight together. In For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts, she offers wisdom and a liberating path forward for all women of color. She crafts powerful ways to address the challenges Brown girls face, from imposter syndrome to colorism. She empowers women to decolonize their worldview, and defy “universal” white narratives, by telling their own stories. Her book guides women of color toward a sense of pride and sisterhood and offers essential tools to energize a movement.
May it spark a fire within you.
What you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority. There is a difference.
As a child growing up in Nicaragua, I had some experiences with white doctors and dentists, and I have a soft spot for those people. Access to medical care, good medical care, is expensive for poor folks in many Latin American countries and the Caribbean. White doctors and dentists would travel from the United States or Europe to serve communities that most will not, not even the voluntourists. In fact, my first tooth was pulled by a white American dentist, and I remember the care and attention I received. Another time I had a rough fall off my bike, and a white American doctor gave me the stitches I needed. He was staying in our home, and I still have my scar to always remember that day. I also want to note that I do not remember these doctors asking me for pictures. They were too busy helping people. I hold these people who come to our countries and do that kind of work in high regard. But voluntourists are another story.
Voluntourism is violent. Voluntourism disguises itself as a good deed to hide that it is an exploitative act of voyeurism. Voluntourists seem to forget history or strategically ignore it. Either way, we cannot reward ignorance, even if it comes dressed in the semblance of goodness.
I know this from my own experiences as the assigned beneficiary of voluntourists and missionaries. I was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Many of my childhood toys, clothes, and meals came from ships that were stocked with charity from an organization called Gospel Outreach. I recall walking onto those boats and seeing piles of toys and boxes upon boxes of three-minute soups. These much-needed supplies were crucial to my childhood.
Now, the people sending this very important stuff decided that they needed to see the faces of the people whose lives they were changing. They not only expected our gratitude, but they also wanted time with us. I do not have very many Nicaraguan childhood memories that do not include voluntourists, or as they like to benevolently call themselves, missionaries. I call short-term white “helpers” voluntourists because that is what they were doing: touring our country and our people and disguising their tourism with the “good deeds” of helping us. Do not let them fool you into believing otherwise.
After hearing about a series of devastating natural disasters and a massively traumatic civil war, a white American church sent missionaries to Nicaragua. They offered aid, along with their agenda to “save” us. These were Christians seeking to “save” our spiritual souls; Protestants aiming to convert Catholics. When my Catholic parents converted to this Protestantism, our new church required that we become hosts and often guides to the hordes of missionary groups that came to visit our home country.
I think back on that time and recall that they were really kind, almost too kind. It was the sort of kindness where they did not ask for our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. It was and continues to be about the feeling we gave them about themselves. They had feelings about my poverty, my Brownness, and they seemed to feel good about saving me. They loved seeing how little we had, as it helped them appreciate how much they had back at home. They often would say we changed their lives. They were so grateful not to be us. While we remained poor and struggling, waiting for the next shipment of goods, they got to go home feeling safer in their distance from our poverty.
In exchange for life-giving goods we had to give them a life-changing experience.
We had to welcome them to our lands with our arms wide open, as though their country had no role in causing our distress. As if their country had not gained power and wealth when their government stole our resources and brought war to our lands. As if their comfort and safety didn’t come from our suffering and endangerment.
They wanted us to say mil gracias to their smiling faces, as if reparations are not due, deserved, and rightfully ours. The current state of so-called underdeveloped countries is the result of greed and exploitation from developed countries. The grief, hunger, and horrors that people in the Global South face is directly related to the abundance of food, happiness, and comfort that these voluntourists have back home.
Poor people have always seen right through this facade of kindness, but in times of need we’ve adapted in order to survive. So, I learned to perform, graciously and adoringly. But even from the tender age of five years old, I understood that they were not here for me. I did not have the words then that I have now for this exploitation. But I knew they were trying to get something out of me: an experience. So I decided to get out of them what I wanted. I remember complimenting a white woman voluntourist’s water jug, and she immediately gave it to me. In her guilt, I saw an opportunity. Their guilt won’t save us, so we save ourselves. There are many stories of people I grew up with attempting to do some sort of income redistribution, and they have been vilified as the bad ones. As if the voluntourists are not the ones exploiting hardships for their selfish gain.
Their need to come and see our “thankful” and “joyous” faces is fundamentally wrong. Most voluntourists have never seen how the Global South population lives and have not bothered to question why we live as we do. We make them appreciate their lives because seeing what ours actually look like shakes these people to their core. How can it not, when they are accustomed to central air-conditioning and everyone driving a car with four empty seats? And then they come to our countries, where hot water is a luxury and where if one person in your family has a car, then you come from means. Outsiders cannot compare these realities and remain unmoved, but what we need is more than white guilt. We need white people to riot against national trade policies implemented by their career politicians and put a stop to corporate exploitation so that we do not have to live like this.
They bastardize their “acts of kindness” by needing to see tattered clothing. They bastardize their “genuine concern” by paying money to fly into countries that are starving due to white settlers’ theft, instead of sending money to support the protestors on the ground working to undo that damage. They bastardize their “good intentions” when their deeds are documented to get a pat on the back, a like on social media, a scholarship for college. They bastardize their “giving back” by expecting something in return, as if our dead ancestors are not enough.
So, I repeat, their need to come and see people suffering is voyeuristic. And I discourage it. Stop this unethical performance of kindness, because most voluntourists have left and told their life-changing stories but dismantled nothing.
—Signed, a poor Brown kid whose picture was taken without my consent
Generational trauma is really at the core of my anger toward voluntourism, colonialism, and American interventions. American interventions are accepted facts that are historically supported, the United States has interfered and actively participated in the demise of what Donald Trump referred to as “shithole countries.”
Voluntourism is a relatively new word that has unknown origins, but it combines both “volunteer” and “tourism” to define a particular kind of unskilled volunteer that seeks to visit the Global South under a guise of benevolence. Yet at the end of the day, in regard to the labor provided by voluntourists, we now know that their impact is minimal.
I am from Central America, so my stories will reflect that. However, each and every country in the Global South has similarly horrendous stories, and as a reader it is important to understand that these are not isolated incidents. To understand voluntourism you have to understand the legacy of outside interference on generations of Indigenous and Black folks. Let’s start with catastrophic genocide and forced Christianization in Latin America by visitors who called themselves pioneers, explorers, conquerors, priests, and Christians.
For colonizers in the 1400s, conquest also meant the Christianization of the Indigenous people living in those lands. Conversion and land meant power. The church was seeking power, and do not let anyone fool you into believing otherwise. And let’s be clear about another thing: Christianization was not a peaceful act.
Conquest of land and people were intrinsically intertwined for the colonizers then, and quite frankly that narrative goes unchanged today. Today, it is known that these arrivals to the New World tortured, raped, exploited, and killed anyone who stood in their way and even those who did not. And always, conversion was framed as an effort to “save” the Indigenous occupants of these lands. It’s the same language that missionaries use today. The assumption that some people do not have the wherewithal to save themselves implies their assumed inferiority.
Back then, men of the church wrote letters that largely reflected on Indigenous people as nonhuman. These Christian leaders often encouraged forceful conversion. The colonizers were European, but more specifically they were Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. There was no one agenda; each country had its own plans for expanding its territories. But one thing they all seemed to agree on was that the original habitants of the New World were subhuman and therefore could only be elevated through conversion and breeding with the members of the superior groups.
Assimilation was and is a key component of colonialism, and it was required for survival for many Indigenous people. Many were forcefully indoctrinated into the accepted religion. This was a time when nations and religions were intertwined, and spreading a world religion meant having more people to claim as subjects. This whole enterprise was never about saving anyone, though that was the language that was used. Rather, it was all about power and which colonizing nation could get the most of it. Forceful conversion was seen as a necessary act for good, because to be Christian was to be human.
The idea that you must elevate someone’s existence means that you do not view them as capable of knowing what is best for themselves. This is a dehumanizing act veiled as a benevolent one, and whether intentional or not this is the history and foundation of missionary work today.
Colonizers “discovered” new lands, but colonizers also stole lands, robbed generations of their religious beliefs, and overall took from people they considered inferior. The Indigenous civilizations they destroyed were marvelous; the few that survived might never return to their former glory.
At the same time that Christianization was occurring, the Europeans were also having children with Indigenous people, Indigenous women. Sometimes pairings happened with consent; sometimes they occurred by force. Some of these early missionaries would even boast that this was their “service to God,” to create mixed children between European and Indigenous people. This traumatic act of devaluing entire groups of people based on racist definitions of civilized and uncivilized is still felt today. A lot of Latin America is comprised of mestizos, meaning people who are part European and part Indigenous. To this day, Latin American mestizo people are largely anti-Indigenous, and this is a result of being told that Indigenous people are inferior and mixing means elevation. We did not create anti-Indigenous sentiment; we were taught it, we were forced to accept it, and then we internalized and perpetuated it on our own. That is the insidious nature of colonization. Many people have survived by assimilating toward the dominant group’s values, and this internalized racism continues to traumatize entire nations.
This type of horizontal violence is painful to experience, and this violence that we enact on one another is horrific. My trauma and my family’s trauma was and continues to be inflicted by rebranded colonizers, known as voluntourists. Seeing voluntourism celebrated reminds me that I am not the first to experience this type of terrorism, nor the last, so it is my duty to speak up against it.
I have Indigenous and Black ancestors. I am a person with deep roots in my country, and therefore I see these visitors who call themselves saviors as the ongoing legacy of past colonization.
My mami’s side of the family comes from a poor rural Nicaraguan town known as Jinotega. Jinotega was mostly Indigenous until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Additionally, that side of the family has a history of looking down on Indigenous people. The erasing of one’s Indigenous connections is common for a lot of people in Latin America. But recently, mi tio started to study the genealogy of our family in Jinotega. This tio discovered that my maternal bisabuelo was Indigenous and that he spoke his Indigenous dialect, until he did not.
I grew up visiting that great-grandfather: Papa Tingo, as we affectionately called him. He lived to be over one hundred years old. I never knew him to speak much, but I met him. We saw him once a year, and each time mi mami would say that you never knew if esta es la última vez that we would see him, a Latina mom proverb. I grew up not thinking too much of him, but knowing this vital piece of information about him now makes me long for some stories.
My family tells stories to keep people alive even after they have passed. We tell stories to honor them. The women in my family have been the primary storytellers. Papa Tingo did not share his stories with me, nor my mom, nor anyone else who can and will pass his stories on to us. But his experiences and his trauma are in our genes, and our genes remember. Trauma is inherited.
Voluntourism is a multimillion-dollar industry, and it is run and sponsored by white Christian folks who seek to forget the sins of their forefathers. They want that good feeling that comes from helping underprivileged people in underprivileged countries. Not enough thought is spent on why some countries have more than others, and in this chapter I am not letting them forget it.
Coming to the United States of America was never the goal; my family was not in high anticipation for our migration, ever. In fact, mi mami cried often because we had left her family and friends. We left her roots. A tree cannot live without roots, and neither can many people. My maternal grandmother died before mi mami could see her, before she could say goodbye. She just could not get there quick enough. My bones feel that anguish, that displacement.
Uprooting people is painful, and some do not survive this violent removal. Our migration was a hard transition and a hard reality to accept, despite the fact that we all understood that things here would be easier than they had ever been in our home country. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti. By the time we migrated in 1992, my country had been in shambles for years. Corruption and poverty were the norm, and class mobility was nearly nonexistent—though much of the same can be said of the United States. Yet the earning potential is different here, and one American dollar equals a lot of Nicaraguan córdobas. The pillaging by Western nations is really what devalues our córdoba. Still, the income my dad could provide for us and our family back home was just too big of a temptation to pass up.
And while the members of my immediate family have all made lives in the United States, that does not erase the fact that my migration is a consequence of American interventions, and many immigrants often pay the highest price for this type of American meddling. If you have ever visited a country that is not as wealthy as the United States, know that these countries do not end up being this poor without some help. Mi Nicaraguita was where she was in 1992 because of years of interventions.
The United States would be responsible for taking down one of our more progressive presidents, José Santos Zelaya. Then in the 1920s, the United States first appointed a Somoza, Anastasio Somoza García, to control our lands and our people. The United States was fixated on Latin American lands and resources, and the US government invested millions of dollars into my home country to exploit those lands and resources. The Americans often install heads of state in the countries they are exploiting, because that is how an empire continues its reign. To the United States, this is a basic business transaction. But those business transactions forever changed my country and numerous countries across the globe. Due to these obvious interventions, several revolutions were attempted in my country, one famously by Augusto César Sandino. Eventually, Sandino was assassinated. This is what happens when you attempt to fight against the United States.
After the United States put the first Somoza in place to rule over my country, Nicaraguans lived through two more Somoza men as our dictators. These men from this family were corrupt and were able to amass one of the biggest fortunes in Latin America due to their pillaging of our natural resources.
The Somozas sold rights to cattle and land to anyone with a robust pocketbook. The Somozas never cared about Nicaragüenses because they were too busy getting rich. When Tachito—the last of the Somoza dictators, also known as Anastasio Somoza Debayle—came into power, he continued the horrible Somoza reign, which overall lasted forty years. Tachito attended West Point, and he was the only graduate of that school with his own personal army. That army was a graduation gift. Tachito was never loyal to us pinolerxs because he barely was one. As the heir to the Nicaraguan “throne,” he was raised very differently than many Nicaraguans. He had no allegiance to us, only to our money.
Tachito was raised in the United States and spoke better English than Spanish. He grew up wealthy. The locals referred to him as the “last marine,” precisely because he was understood to be an outsider, and because it was common knowledge that the Somoza men and the United States were in bed together. The United Nations cited Tachito in the seventies with numerous violations, and his national guard did monstrosities to our citizens. By that time, much of the Nicaraguan population could not deny the terrors occurring, and a powerful revolution was afoot. Somoza attempted to fight back with the help and training of US soldiers who equipped the national guard with everything they needed to stop the revolution from taking place.
Still our revolution succeeded. Sandinistas overthrew Tachito, but before the dictator fled to the United States he was able to get his hands on all our money. My country’s government was left with only $3 million, total. The Somozas had left us in ruins, and we had to rebuild a country from scraps. After the revolution, guerrilla fighters and leaders were vetted for loyalty. They tried to bring us back to the days before dictators had robbed us of our rights.
Mi papi’s older brother, my uncle, served in the national guard under one of these tyrannous presidents. My tio served under a dictator, Tachito, because he was promised a scholarship for college. Tio José served as one of the president’s personal bodyguards and henchmen. The national guards, at that time, were known to be ruthless killers and would all eventually be charged for their crimes. Against my family’s adamant protests, my uncle went ahead and joined the Guardia Nacional toward the end of Tachito’s reign. When the Sandinistas won, all of Tachito’s soldiers were thrown in jail.
Mi tio only served the dictator for a few months, but when Tachito fled the country, my uncle was sentenced to serve twenty-three years in jail. Mi papi risked his life to save him. Mi papi had a sit-down with the new Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega. Mi papi and his band were invited to play at a presidential party, and that night he made his way toward Ortega to request that he intervene and free my tio. Because of this plea by mi papi, my tio was then freed. I should note that my family does not come from a long line of soldiers; our heritage is in generations upon generations of musicians. But American interventions make soldiers out of everyone.
What I remember of mi tio was that he was an alcoholic. Mi tio would drink until he passed out, and that could occur anywhere. If he passed out on the front porch of his mami’s home, then at least we knew he was safe. God forbid he pass out on the street somewhere, which occurred often, and then we would hear of it through children who played in the streets. The kids would come up to mi abuela’s portón and tell her where my uncle was seen last.
Whenever we visited my paternal abuelita, which was often enough, Tio José came. The children, my cousins and I, were usually escorted as far away as the adults could take us from him. It was not because they thought he was dangerous, but maybe because he was a remnant of a past everyone wanted to forget. We were no longer at war, but the echoes of war were felt and they were with us even when we were all actively trying to forget.
And while they wanted to forget, it seems he could not. I will never know what that tio saw and what that tio lived through while helping to keep the dictator Tachito alive. As a kid I did not understand his alcoholism, but as an adult I always wonder what he was trying to escape. I wonder what demons he wrestled with. I wonder what he was trying to silence within himself.
That tio died a few years ago. The story goes that he got so drunk he passed out on a road and a car ran over his body and kept driving. Alas, he passed out somewhere nobody could protect him.
I have only seen mi papi cry a handful of times, and when he heard about his big brother’s death, I saw him sob. I will never know what mi papi knew, what mi papi shielded me from, but I will never forget those tears. Trauma is inherited.
He had another brother who had joined the army, but he was on the other side. Mi tio was a teenager and a singer at our church when he was forced into the Sandinista army to fight the US-backed Tachito dictatorship. This uncle was a pacifist. He did not believe in violence, and because of this his commander shot him in the head in front of his entire platoon. These were tense times, and compassion was not what it would take to keep the United States at bay.
Mi tio’s death is dark stain on the Sandinista revolution for my entire family. But for me his death signifies a dark stain on the United States. My tio was killed because the United States insisted on keeping its grip on our country; the Americans wanted to keep control of our lands and they wanted to secure their investments.
After the devastation of burying one of her youngest sons, my abuelita stood in front of the gates of her home in her neighborhood of Las Brisas and refused to let the Sandinistas take another son. She said they would have to kill her before she would let another son go. No other son was taken from her home. Trauma is inherited.
The Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime, but the removal of a puppet does not remove the puppeteers. Our revolution threatened the reach of US power. The embargo in 1985 was just another American strategy to get the country back in line.
I have seen my country struggle since the day I was born. I was born in 1985, after the revolution and just a few months after the United States placed its embargo. This was a time when even diapers were hard to come by, formula also. I grew up hearing about our revolution and the tension that it created for everyone. I grew up understanding that my parents had lived through a war, and they survived despite the very many people who did not. Mi mami gave birth to my brother and I while also surviving the distress of giving birth in a war-torn country. Trauma is inherited.
I cannot fully blame them for how their trauma has impacted them and thus impacted me. But what I can do is hold the United States and its voluntourists accountable for upholding a narrative where they think of themselves as “helping” people in countries that Americans actually helped destroy. But it took me learning my history and understanding white supremacy to find the words for the generational trauma that has always impacted me. For a long time, I had aspirations to become American—until I learned what America has meant for me directly, and how it has changed the course of my entire family line. Knowledge gave me the power to lift the veil that covered my eyes; knowledge allowed me to see it all clearly.
And still, we have been tasked with welcoming these colonizers to our lands with our arms wide open, as though their country had no role in causing our distress. So, the real question is: What have these voluntourists done, and what can they do instead in their own communities?
Nicaragua is not a special case; Nicaragua has not been ransacked more than any other country in the Global South. Nicaragua is just one in a long list of countries that have lived through similar terrorist acts by the United States and European powers. It takes one simple Google search to find out what has happened in Iraq, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Thailand, the entire continent of Africa—literally every country with Black and Brown citizens. None of what I have shared in this chapter is news, but still there exists an outright dismissal of this information, which remains striking to me.
I am angry that my picture was taken without my consent when these missionaries came to plant some trees at our church orphanage. But in a deeper sense, I am angry that missionaries visit our countries at all. What I require is for missionaries to stop visiting our countries. What I require is that they do something to significantly change the grave situation in our countries by advocating that their government stop pillaging them.
True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether individual or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication.
In my twenties, I attended one of the few elite theological institutions in America that lauds itself in churning out progressive movers and shakers: Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. VDS is a wonderfully utopian place where I was challenged and pushed to learn more than I ever thought I could handle, and quite frankly it changed me for the better. However, such progressive liberal havens like these also breed a particular type of white student.
The white people I met there were well-meaning, well-read liberal folks who happened to know all the ins and outs of racism and colonialism, but somehow positioned those problems outside of themselves rather than taking ownership of them. They did not understand themselves to be part of the problem, and they did not see themselves as benefitting from these systems of oppression. Many saw themselves as strictly allies.
It was in this program that I first encountered the term voluntourism. I had finally obtained the word to validate my unsettling experiences and feelings of dissonance. And in dealing with that dissonance as I had experienced it growing up, a new type of dissonance was rearing its head. I found myself surrounded by people who knew the terminology and still found ways to justify their actions as different or better.
I was a typical graduate student, meaning I read all day and drank all night. One day, while drinking and chatting with one of my white peers, we stumbled into his dorm room. We lived in the same building, and he had to get something before we headed out to the bars for the evening. I had never been to his room before, so I started looking around. He had typical pictures and trinkets strewn about, and then something caught my eye.
- On Sale
- Sep 7, 2021
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press